Player on the Black Keys

Player on the Black Keys

In an extract from a memoir in progress, musician Tony MacMahon remembers moments of inspiration, captivation – and terror. Photos: Lucy Clarke

 

Sing a song
for the mistress
of the bones

the player
on the black keys
the darker harmonies

light jig
of shoe buckles
on a coffin lid

from ‘Ó Riada’s Farewell’ by John Montague

***

If ever you stroll down Capel Street with your arse to the Liffey and your belly to Bolton Street, you will come to the smallest shop in Dublin, the last but one on your left. The Horse Shoe at number 85 is a Polish breadshop today, the facade in buttercup yellow and the inside awash with the smell of freshly-baked bread. But from 1946 until 1989 it was where the late John Kelly from west Clare ran a small business, reared a family and held court to three generations of traditional musicians.

At Oireachtas time in early October, when the first Claremen arrived, Sonny Brogan was sure to turn up and suggest, politely, to Mr Kelly – as the locals called him – that it was time to close the shop. Sonny arrived most days, neat and tidy in a dark blue suit, a white shirt and a grey, cloth cap. The cap was always perfectly level. He did an occasional bit of painting and decorating, but his speciality was discussing the intricacies of a tune, as customers came and went, looking for mousetraps, hot-water bottles or six-inch nails. Music took precedence over business in that little shop and customers were often made to feel like strangers interrupting a private gathering.

I walked in off the street on my first free afternoon from St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in September 1957, and there John Kelly stood behind the counter – a commanding figure in a trilby hat and worn suit of indeterminate grey. He was one of those people you meet very occasionally in life who make an immediate impression on you, as if the multitude of sights, smells and impressions from everything around you suddenly fall into harmonic certainty. That’s what he did to you. And he was either for you, straight away, or he wasn’t.

He was blocky and broad-shouldered and seemed, on first glance, to be brooding through a cloud of blue pipe-smoke, looking at you with a mixture of curiosity and light boredom, as if mulling over whether he would bother talking to you or not. He had style, and a way of shaking hands that would rise your heart. The left hand swept the pipe out of his mouth as the right, big as a shovel, stretched out above chest height, palm face down, blackish grimy fingers spread wide for the grip, his small brown eyes dancing, a raw smile gushing in a stutter over stained, uncertain teeth to light up the shop and the street outside. I will never forget him. He was my first mentor, a father to me and a friend, the man who taught me how to listen to music. How to discern. How to tell the difference between notes and music. How to hear joy in a tune, how to hear pain in a lament. There I was with my Leaving Certificate honours, studying to be a teacher, becoming aware, through the generosity of spirit of this man, how truly ignorant I was of the music I professed to play well.

I had come to Dublin in youthful arrogance at eighteen. I had a Radio Éireann contract for three guineas in my back pocket for my first broadcast, an invitation to join the Kincora Ceili Band, I was the winner of an all-Ireland accordion competition, I had just finished a potential officers’ course in Collins Barracks, Cork, and was awaiting a call to be commissioned 2nd lieutenant, 4th Battalion in the Forsa Cosanta Áitiúil (FCÁ) and to receive a two-feet high parchment certificate signed by President de Valera!

Peg by peg Kelly took me down, nice and steady, until I was able to cast a cold eye on what I was doing as a musician, and more importantly, what I was thinking about while playing. He played the old music of County Clare and spoke fondly of his heroes Patsy Geary and Ellen Galvin. He praised when it was due and he tore strips off me and anyone else who transgressed his norms of style and etiquette.

When he played, everything about him floated into a symmetry of visual harmony: the smouldering brown eyes, the rakish hat, the lock of badly-dyed hair escaping to fall in front of his right ear, the blackened fingers on the fiddle-strings, the begrimed nails that sometimes seemed triangular in the way they were cut, the double-tap of his heavy, unpolished right shoe. And his music.

He was a truly great player, in the way I care to use that term. He was no superstar, as Seán McGuire or Frankie Gavin or Seán Keane were. His fiddle-playing was complex in the extreme and seemed to come from a place quite remote. I could listen to the great players mentioned above and be uplifted by their sheer brilliance of style and technique, getting most of what they were playing in focus in my mind and holding the tune close, so to speak, in the spirit of the moment. Kelly, on the other hand, baffled my brain for all the years I knew him and loved his music. It was calm and understated and he always seemed lost in whatever piece he happened to be playing. His rhythm had a natural comfort, which cooled the listener into a kind of repose. What I would call an excited meditation. His music had an otherwordly quality which said to me: just enjoy and do not try to understand. He was the first to impress on me the importance of locality in traditional music. The music of place. Rare and racy of the soil he surely was.

I remember the time we played a duet at an Oireachtas competition in 1958. We won, were presented with a cheque for £10 each and John drove me back to my digs in his black Morris 8, the sweet little eight horse-power engine sounding like a Singer sewing machine in fine, well-oiled mechanical harmony. He stopped the car, just about where the Bank of Ireland sits in grotesque visual discord on Dame Street today, switched off the engine, took a thoughtful puff of his pipe while looking around at our traps on the back seat and intoned: ‘God bless the little instruments that made the money’, and drove off.

He used drive to Miltown Malbay in the first week of July every year to teach, play and meet old friends such as Bobby Casey, Micho Russell, and Junior Crehan, spending the previous week in fussy, bad-tempered preparation. In July 1981 this involved re-painting the Morris Minor, which, with black gloss paint and a brush, he did himself.

I had won a Clare County Council Leaving Certificate scholarship to University College, Galway, but foolishly rejected it, having no one to advise me on the benefits of a university education. I had opted instead to answer the safe, secure ‘call’ I had received to attend St Patrick’s Teacher Training College in Dublin. No fees. Full board and lodging. Oide Scoile after my name and a secure teaching job after two years. A very desirable career in 1957.

The Dean of Studies was Rev. Father Johnson – ‘The Bat’. That was the name by which he was known, and loathed, by generations of aspirant primary-school teachers from 1950 to 1977. And the name was just right: he was about forty, thin, delicate-looking and nasty, an oversized head leaning to one side, grey hair cut right down to the bone. Silent in movement, the left shoulder drooped in the same direction as his head, so much so that the limp wrist reached nearly as far as his knee. A full, moist mouth always seemed at odds with eyes of arctic blue, denuded, or so it seemed, of lashes. A rale bag o’ shit as Pee ‘Two-step’ Flynn from Castlebar dubbed him early in week one, after The Bat had taken him to task for his jaunty way of mounting the chapel steps: ‘Why can’t you walk like a man, ya gob-daw?’ he had said to Pee one morning, who stood head and shoulders above him with a fawning smile. ‘That’s the way I was made Father’, says Pee. ‘An act of miscreation,’ replied The Bat sarcastically.

Four of us garsúns from Clare, shifty and unsettled in our Sunday best, sat huddled together for a bit of support in a cubicle of the main college dormitory. Four boys on our first day away from home. Nervousness and a bit of devilment opened our pores – and out gushed a blast of wild mountain reels: suave Michael Crehan from Miltown Malbay on the tin whistle; giggles Frank Custy of Crusheen on that instrumental king of clunk, the banjo; O’Loughlin of Lisdoonvarna on the spoons, with myself on a howling accordion riding rough-shod over a puny whistle, banjo and a pair of desert spoons.

It was a fine autumn afternoon in 1957 and here we were, the pride and joy of our families, about to set out on two years of teacher training. Custy of Crusheen was all smiles at what a Connemara fish-wife had said to him the previous week after he bought a bag of periwinkles from her: ‘Ate up now – there’ll be more while ago when you ate what’s that!’ One tune led to another, as we tried to soak a bit of comfort from each other in our homesickness. It wasn’t long before we were joined by a dour stocky lad from Teileann, Tommy Byrne, whose son Dermot would go on to light up our lives a half century later with Donegal notes of pure magic.

So, things were beginning to look up, when a sepulchral shadow appeared above my howling accordion. The music stopped. The Bat stood glaring at us, in silence. Fear fell down on top of us as tension rose. He reached both arms out to me, as if in supplication. ‘Give it to me’, he said, pointing at my instrument, bought a month earlier for £32.10 shillings in Crowley’s of Cork with my FCÁ gratuity. I handed him my accordion, he turned to leave, stopped, faced us again and said: ‘Music is the worst form of noise.’

That was my first official encounter with the Taliban. I had survived a previous engagement a few months earlier, not long after after the Fleadh Ceoil of 1956 in Ennis. The setting for my public disgrace was Mary Kate’s Cinema, as it was affectionately known, on the main street of Ennis. It was mid-afternoon and the pupils of all four secondary schools were stuffed inside, to profess, en masse, their piety and promise of abstinence from the evils of drink – and to hear a top-up talk from His Grace Dr Rodgers, Bishop of Killaloe. The Brother Superior in Ennis at the time, Br Fegan, had detailed me to play a hornpipe called ‘The King of the Fairies’ for His Grace the Bishop – after the assembled grandees of Ennis had kissed his ring, sucked up to him and roared out their renunciation of drink, together with all sins of the flesh to which it led.

My recent triumph as an all-Ireland accordion winner had been demonstrated at the prizewinners’ concert in that same cinema a month earlier. I had played on a temporary stage, built by my brother Christy and another voluntary Fleadh worker, which was set some twenty feet forward of the cinema stage. Anyhow, muggins here, thick as two short planks in my belted blue coat, accordion hanging jauntily over my shoulder, arrived at what I thought was the stage door. It was rusty blue and I had entered there for the big prizewinners’ concert.

I knocked demurely. A polite single-knuckle knock. Silence. I followed with a two-knuckler. Silence. A mild rat-tat-tat with a penny on the steel door would surely do the job. Silence – of an odd kind, as if my ears were full of a fat nothingness. A chill of fear ran up my back – I was late. I had missed everything – panic got a grip on me and made my knees knock. Throwing timidity to the wind and thinking of the great muzzle-blast of a .303 military rifle and its mule-kick against my shoulder in Kilworth that March, I drew a kick at the door with my FCÁ hobnailer, paused to judge the silence – a funny kind of empty silence – and followed it up with three of my most vicious best. I heard footsteps approaching, the bars were pulled, the double-iron doors opened out against my face and there I stood, a blinded scarecrow, frozen in the full glare of lights, under the gaze of Bishop Rodgers, the parish priest, Brother Superiors and Sister Superior and some four hundred male and female students, my accordion in my hand, my coat buttoned up to my neck, my specs fogged up. I sank to the ground, slid under the nearest seat and stuck my face into the smelly carpet. Jesus, Mary and Holy St Joseph – as my poor mother used to say. Everything became a mumble of sound, boos, clapping and wolf-whistles, which went on and on, until my name was called and I got up on the stage to make a holy show of myself and a pure horse’s arse of ‘The Sally Gardens’ reel.

Fifty years later I heard a recording Radio Éireann had made of the Fleadh Ceoil prizewinners’ concert in 1956. My playing was truly revolting; I was so ashamed that I felt like ripping the RTÉ tape out of the machine and burning it. ‘Fuck the two-row button accordion,’ I whispered to myself, yet again.

It was the two blind Dunne brothers who first split my darkness open.

I was ten. Their music had a sort of call, dragging at my innards like a bad dream at breakfast. The fiddle and banjo being played into my face in the Ennis market-place that afternoon had a rough and raucous sweetness, as if two jug-fulls of music pleasure were being poured at the same time into my two ears.

My face was within inches of the fiddle; dirty fingers scrawbed at me, trained, as I was, in the washing of hands, face and neck. Only what teachers and neighbours saw. Everything else went unwashed. I was standing looking up at the four vibrating fiddle strings, into strange eyes and parted lips. I had never seen fingers as long, as yellow or as dirty – the nails were long and curved like talons, caked in black dirt. A kind of sweet nausea began to prod at my empty stomach: the sharp, darting movements of fingers on gut and metal strings, as if under attack from the beaks of wild and peevish birds. And the screams of pleasure those strings blasted out into the damp Clare air made my heart sing, at the age of ten, schoolbag on my back, on my way home from the Ennis Christian Brothers.

Years later I found out their names, and the name of the first reel I heard that day, ‘The Broken Pledge’. Christy Dunne played the banjo and his brother Michael the fiddle. Michael stood small and frail in a suit of shabby brown, his left cheek glued to the yellowing violin, his mouth slightly open, his eyes a milky grey-white, seemingly sightless. Christy was tall and magisterial, better dressed. Also partially sighted. Thirty years later I had the joy of inviting them to appear on a television show I was producing at the time for RTÉ called The Pure Drop, and while waiting for the artists to come on stage, an official of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann knocked, entered the control room, and asked if I wanted two tinkers waiting outside for me to be sent away.

The darkness those two men punctured for me that afternoon in Ennis had fallen on me a few years before. I was about six. Maybe seven. As I crossed from O’Connell Street, Ennis, to the Turnpike where I lived, a bird-cry stopped me. I was a lad with glasses and a funny stare, gangly and awkward. Gawking into Moloney’s yard that day I saw something that has tormented me to this day and I have a recurring daydream of unseen hands wrenching my second and third vertebrae apart from behind, launching me into the abyss.

It all goes back to flailing wings and floating sunlit feathers. To Joe Moloney’s poultry yard in Ennis. ‘Slant’, the handyman, in his cloth cap and flour-bag apron sitting on a box in the shed, stretching a chicken’s neck over his knee and pulling deeply downwards until I heard the crack. Convulsions while the plucking started, fistfuls of feathers torn from the roots, dropped in a basket, some escaping to float in sunlit elegance upwards and out the narrow door of death.

Over his right knee each neck was stretched and broken, as I watched, stuck to the ground in fear and horror. After each plucking the dead chicken was dropped into a basket on the other side, the right knee uncovered and ready for the next ball of writhing brown and gold feathers.

I don’t know why it reminds me of my third-class teacher. An errant boy was called to the top of the class. The teacher stood feet apart and gestured to the boy, pointing a short wooden stick downwards and inwards towards himself. It was the signal – the boy bent down and put his head between the teacher’s knees. The teacher then bent forward and gently tapped on the front of the boy’s knee-caps until the knees locked. The teacher was short and thin. The boy was now bent in the shape of an inverted L – legs locked and upright, bottom sticking up and head secured between teacher’s lower thighs. He would bend forward over the boy’s back, stretch the thin trouser-cloth over his bum with the finger-tips of both hands and beat him on the bottom with his stick until the boy writhed in pain between his thighs. He was short, thin, peevish and bad-tempered and he always seemed to have one hand in his pocket, straining to fix whatever had to be fixed inside.

Fear was the form. You put your head down and hoped the teacher didn’t scalp you with the knuckles of his closed fist on the side of your skull above the ear at algebra class. You knew nothing about fear until that cunt had you standing at the blackboard in your leaky shoes, his big arse plonked on the radiator, his paunch stuck out. A crack on your ear-bone with four knuckles. Dull bumps and the whistle of a distant train in your sore ear. No real problem until your mother finds that advert for tea-boy in a recording studio and your future boss sends you for a hearing test. The audiologist’s graph comes back with a nasty bend downwards like a fiddler’s elbow. Deaf in one ear above 2,000 cycles per second. Fuck off for yourself and make someone else’s tea.

Which I suppose is why the shiny little brass cartridges in the kitchen drawer at home in the Turnpike were a god-send – daddy’s .22 rifle a few feet away beside the dresser. A few loose detonators keeping the slugs company in the drawer. At least you could dream about getting your own back. If ever you had the chance.

One morning in the science room I was sitting next to a boy called Dessie Maher who occasionally lapsed into a state of strange, frightening behaviour: he would suddenly clasp his hands together between his knees, his whole body trembling, eyes shining, teeth bared in an ugly snarl of distress. Half-way through the physics lesson he had a seizure and just as I asked him what was wrong I found himself impaled on a stare from the Brother. I shrank in fear as Dessie’s convulsions brought the entire class to a state of horrified watchfulness. A command cut into my brain: 'Come up here, Sonny!'

Believing it to be an order to Dessie, I glanced at him, and saw the glazed eyes, the quivering body. Looking around, several pairs of eyes told me that he meant me. I got up and walked to the front of the classroom. The Brother was on the rostrum, next to a demonstration desk on which stood a glass vessel containing nitric acid, the flame of a bunsen-burner licking at its base. Bluish liquid bubbled. He spoke words I will never forget. In three, spaced commands:

Take off your glasses, sonny.’
‘Put your glasses on that desk, sonny.’
‘Now put your hands down by your sides, sonny.’

I folded the spectacles and placed them on the desk. Looking back up at him, my good right eye was just finding focus when a blur of movement shafted into my peripheral vision on the left, followed by the explosive concussion of a blow to my head. Vision shot to black, traces of white light bursting outwards from a pain deep inside my skull. The four blows which followed registered only as violent, rocking motions, delivered to each side of my head, spaces of several seconds between them. My left ear now screaming in outrage, a hard pain tunnelled its way down deep inside my skull. Momentarily blind and deaf, the sixth and final blow sent me crashing against the demonstration desk.

But no tears came. My vision began to clear. I felt a hand on my arm. Dessie  handed me my glasses and guided me back to my seat. At the outer margins of pain, something awful happened to me. Sitting down, a deep calm settled on me which melted, in a kind of slow-motion, into a strange and stellar stillness, out of which a shaft of hatred hatched and began to claw its way inside me. It was an interior harmony such as I had never known. With it came a dulling of the pain in my head and a dawning awareness of my own body: I looked at my hands… claw-like… like the fiddler’s hands, yellow talons with undernail deep dirt… and my mind began to tumble into a jumble of wild, flashing images… fingers in flames… claws, talons, crows and jack-daws tearing at my eyes… dirt from nails embedded under my eye-lids… wild notes showering like hot coals off the steel banjo strings… energy began to pump… anger blazed … fused with revulsion at what had been happening to me… the writhing chickens and the fistful of shining feathers… the silence at home… the cancer-sore on our dog’s front paw…

I looked up and saw the Brother re-setting the experimental apparatus as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I now found myself studying him, whereas in the past I would have looked at him with fear. Suddenly, the riot of fury in me took on a mind of its own; my good eye riveted on a shaving-cut on the Brother’s jaw. The dried blood and its fragment of white paper began to melt in slow motion into a pistol foresight blade which began to move up and down and all over the black soutane until it sat on the mouth – on the lips. And steadied there, and disappeared. Skull-pain lanced through me again, propelling me into a surge of rage.

Then, just as naturally as picking up a cup of tea, I whispered in silence to myself: ‘I’ll do it.’

Published on 1 January 2009

Tony MacMahon is a traditional musician and former television producer in RTÉ, where he produced The Pure Drop, The Green Linnet, Aisling Gheal, The Long Note, The Blackbird and the Bell and many other series. He has made two solo recordings, Tony MacMahon (1972) and MacMahon from Clare (2000), and recorded I gCnoc na Graí (1985) with Noel Hill and Aislingí Ceoil (1994) with Noel Hill and Iarla Ó Lionáird.